Privilege and Inequality
The American Dream: The Double-Edged Myth
Part 2 (Part One)
Is the U.S. economy a "level playing field", full of fairness? Of course not. Yet people continue to run into the brick wall of economic injustice without challenging it, and without questioning the mythos that brings them so little happiness.
In this conclusion of a two-part article (click here for Part One), Natalie Smith and Alex J. Noury observe the pervasiveness of privilege and inequality in our society.
by Natalie Smith and Alex J. NouryAmerican cultural expectations as articulated in the American Dream arose and evolved from our frontier history (as brilliantly explored by historians Frederick Jackson Turner and Richard Slotkin and contemporary anthropologists, such as University of Central Florida's Vance Geiger). The Dream presupposes a limitless vista of land and resources that only need be tamed into property and wealth by pioneers with a strong work ethic, upright morality and courage. In fact, the image of the American West is so powerful that it permeates our economic and political vocabulary without our being conscious of it. Osama bin Laden is “wanted dead or alive.” Nations that do not accept U.S. global supremacy are “rogue.” To get anywhere you have to take “the bull by the horns.” The “real” people on “The Apprentice” even play out a scripted American stereotype. The most favored competitor on the show was a self-made man from Idaho who wore a black cowboy hat while negotiating a deal.
The vista of never-ending land and resources still serves as a metaphor for urban and rural entrepreneurs wanting to exploit opportunity. Yet the frontier of opportunity is not so fair. Corporate welfare tips the scales of economic justice significantly in favor of big business. This has made it virtually impossible for small- and micro-businesses to compete in an economy that provides credits, subsidies, and favorable trade and labor policies for large corporations.
This is particularly true in the agricultural sector. Family farms throughout this country are being run out of business by corporate producers. For example, as a result of decreased profits to agricultural corporations, dairy farmers in New York have been forced to sell their multi-generational businesses. Small citrus and vegetable producers in Florida are continually being driven to bankruptcy, unable to compete against agribusiness companies that thrive on the benefits of corporate economies of scale and farm subsidies. This is not the result of free-market economics.
Government favoritism towards big business destroys the potential for family businesses to remain competitive in the U.S. market, let alone on the global market. As a result, multi-generational livelihoods, through which socio-economic identity has been formed, are being stripped from the American worker. An independent Florida farmer, like our reigning cowboy Donald Trump, was mentored by his heroic father and believed passionately in his living. When his produce goes under, literally, he has no TV show from which to sing praises about the American Dream.
For the U.S. factory workers who dare to “stand up for themselves,” they are likely greeted with a resounding, “You're fired.” The 11,000 striking airline workers of 1981 discovered this painful reality when they were fired by the most gifted frontier myth-maker of all, former President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan espoused middle class values of virtuous work ethic and productivity, even as we witnessed the decline of the middle class and increasing concentration of wealth. The United States exhibited the widest income gap between the rich and the poor of any industrialized country in the 1980s (New York Times, October 27, 1995).
Unequal concentrations of wealth have been a fact of American history since the founding fathers established the republic. Plantation slavery, the industrial revolution, the military-industrial complex since WWII —- all of these were built on the backs of a poor and oppressed majority and used racism, sexism, and various other prejudices to justify their modus operandi. Yet, we can challenge the past not to predict the future.
The reality of this country needs to be made into what its founders claimed it should be: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” for all, not just the chosen few. Heilbroner notes, in words that echo true today, “We are simply not concerned, beyond a mild lip-service, with mounting an all-out effort to raise the level of national health or civic virtue, or mass living conditions or average education or upbringing.” Economic justice is achieved when all our sisters and brothers can share opportunity equally. W.E.B. DuBois noted in his 1904 book, The Souls of Black Folk, “American is not another word for Opportunity to all her sons.”
The American Dream will truly be achievable to all when privilege becomes a thing of the past. When the average American (regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, etc.) has an equal chance at entrepreneurial success against a corporate giant like Wal-Mart. Then and only then has the American Dream succeeded. Meanwhile, the allure of this dream may serve to maintain high levels of productivity, economic optimism, and, perhaps, even a more profound patriotism among the working class. There is no American Dream for whom there is no social and economic justice.
In the great words of poet Langston Hughes: “Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed/ Let it be that great strong land of love/ Where never kings connive or tyrants scheme/ That any man be crushed by one above” (Let America Be America Again, 1938). Let us narrow that gap between expectation and reality. As a nation bids farewell to the most revered symbol of the American Dream, President Reagan, let us transform fleeting symbols into grounded truths.
Alex Noury received his B.A. in Anthropology from Hartwick College, where he researched the origins of horse transportation, and his M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Florida, where he focused on economic development, globalization, and resistance movements in Latin America. He is currently a research assistant at the National Institute of Health.
Natalie Smith received her B.A. in History at Rollins College, where she completed historical and anthropological research on Florida farmers, and she obtained her M.A. in Anthropology at the University of Florida. She has also studied at the University of Seville in Spain, taught for a year in Japan, served a year in Americorps and is active in feminist causes. Currently, she is a writer and editor in Gainesville, Florida.
Part One of this article is available here.
Copyright 2004 by Alex Noury. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission of Alex Noury.
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